THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN

Producer: Neal H. Moritz, Patrick Dempsey and Tania Landau
Director: Simon Curtis
Writer: Mark Bomback
Stars: Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried, Kathy Baker, Martin Donovan, Gary Cole, Ryan Kiera Armstong, McKinley Belcher III, Ian Lake and Kevin Costner
Studio: Fox 2000 Pictures

D

After the recent inundation of live-action talking dog movies based on books by W. Bruce Cameron (“A Dog’s Purpose,” “A Dog’s Journey,” “A Dog’s Way Home”), Simon Curtis offers an alternative with this adaptation of the bestseller by Garth Stein, which proves just as bad—a manipulative tearjerker that goes from touching to cloying faster than the Ferraris that speed around the track throughout the movie.

But unlike Cameron’s books, in which canines are perpetually reincarnated in order to serve their masters (and, apparently, their offspring ad infinitum—though Cameron fails to explain how this process applied to previous owners), “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is a Pinocchio talking-dog movie: its pooch, a golden retriever played by a succession of animal actors of varied ages, wants to become a real, live boy.

He also wants to race in sports cars. That’s the result of being adopted as a pup by stock-car driver Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia—and yes, the character’s surname reflects the quality of the movie’s inspiration and sense of humor). Denny names his pet Enzo—there’s the Ferrari obsession at work—and the two bond; in fact, they’re inseparable, except when Denny abandons Enzo for days or weeks on end with pals at the garage where he sometimes works in order to go and race.

Enzo learns much of what he comes to know about humans from watching television—it’s from a documentary on Mongolian dogs that he comes to believe in the possibility of being reincarnated as a human—but unlike Chauncey Gardiner, who had a similar educational experience and spoke little as a result, Enzo yammers on endlessly in the voice of Kevin Costner. His stream-of-consciousness, doggie POV narration includes lots of cutesy off-kilter half-misunderstandings, but mostly takes the form of clumsily pseudo-philosophical nostrums.

These are largely derived from the race footage that a rapt Denny watches, and from his special skills as a driver. These have to deal with the obstacles you encounter on the track, the most important being rain. Unlike many drivers, we’re told, Denny doesn’t slow down in the rain—he just barrels down, confident in his ability to control the car.

That’s an important lesson, you see, because racing is like life. It hands you troubles you have to overcome rather than shy away from. It’s a metaphor, you see—a dumb one, no doubt, but a lesson Denny must master because his life will be filled with speed bumps that Enzo will help him get over without crashing.

The first involves Eve (Amanda Seyfried), a lovely girl Denny courts and marries. They soon have a daughter named Zoë. Enzo at first sees Eve as an interloper, but eventually bonds with her and the kid as well. Unfortunately, Eve falls ill, and Enzo and Denny must watch as she slowly, but inevitably, succumbs. You’ll be happy to know that Denny is attentive to her needs during this time, though he still races occasionally.

Eve’s death, however, brings still more troubles, because Maxwell (Martin Donovan), her rich, snooty father, forces his wife Trish (Kathy Baker) to conspire with him in suing for custody of Zoë (now played by charming little Ryan Kiera Armstrong)—he has the temerity to have always considered Denny’s occupation too dangerous for a family man. Maxwell even resorts to dirty pool to improve his chances of winning the case. Luckily, when Denny is inclined to give up and settle the suit, Enzo intervenes, and…

Just when you’ve suppressed a laugh while others in the audience are blubbering around you, the indefatigable Curtis comes up with not one but two toppers—the shot that adorns the poster and a postscript in which Denny has become a famous Ferrari driver—just another genuflection to the car company—and meets a little someone who wants his autograph. (Guess who that might be.) Did I forget to mention that there’s also a scene in which Enzo is struck by a car? Or that there are quite a few in which Enzo relieves himself, for those who like that sort of thing?

Under Curtis’ take-no-prisoners, sledgehammer direction, no heart-wringing point in the story is allowed to pass without italicizing. The technical side of things is fine, although he and cinematographer Ross Emery make little of the racing sequences. (They do linger on the cars at rest, and the billboard-like outfits the drivers wear, though.) Ventimiglia recycles the soulful persona from his weepy TV show and Seyfried certainly fills the part of a beautiful, sad victim. One has to sympathize with Donovan, who’s forced to walk through his villainous role with a perpetual nose-turned-up sneer. Baker fares somewhat better, though she has to put across a courtroom conversion that’s really embarrassing (one positive point: it’s situated within a clever visual joke involving the TV “Law & Order” franchise). As for Costner, you get to a point where you’d wish he’d just clam up and take a breather.

This movie might have the word “art” in the title, but it’s much more about crass merchandising. Dog lovers may appreciate the canine-themed treacle, but for others it will probably be as insufferable as a puppy next door that just won’t stop barking.